Shavuot - the cream of all the festivals

The one time in the year that we all get to eat guilt-free cheesecake

By Denise Phillips, May 21, 2009

Shavuot is a festival with several names — Festival of Weeks, Festival of The Giving of the Torah, and for some, the Cheesecake Festival!

All Jewish festivals have symbolic foods and Shavuot is no exception. But why have dairy foods become synonymous with Shavuot?

One popular explanation is that as soon as the Jews accepted the Torah, they became obliged to follow the laws of kashrut. However, these laws were completely new to them and they were nervous about getting them all right. For example, there were new laws on which animals could be eaten, and the way in which they had to be checked for blemishes and illness before and after slaughter.

In addition, all the pots and other cooking utensils had to be koshered before they could be used. So until this was done, and until they were more experienced in applying the laws, they decided that the best option was to stick to dairy foods.

Another reason offered by our sages is that receiving the Torah was a form of rebirth. One of the miracles of childbirth is that a mother’s milk provides her newborn with all the nourishment it needs. In this sense, Torah is like milk, for it encompasses within it all the sustenance that man’s soul needs for spiritual vitality and growth.

Other sages have pointed out a link with Moses. He was rescued from the River Nile on the sixth of Sivan, the day on which Shavuot falls. The Talmud relates how Pharaoh’s daughter first brought Moses to Egyptian wet nurses, but God did not want the mouth that would one day communicate with Him to be nursed by a non-Jew.

So He arranged for Yochevet, Moses’s real mother, to be appointed by Pharaoh’s daughter to nurse the child. The eating of milk foods on the sixth of Sivan commemorates this hidden miracle.

On a practical note, Shavuot occurs in the late spring at the same time as lambs and calves are normally born. This means there are an abundance of dairy products available.

One of the most convincing and logical reasons is that the Torah promised the Jewish people a “Land flowing with milk and honey”. Dairy meals recall this lyrical description of Israel.

One further interpretation by Yad L’Achim is that honey comes from a bee, which is not kosher, and milk comes from a live animal, whose meat is forbidden until the animal is slaughtered. Both honey and milk, therefore, allude to the power of Torah, which can transform an impure creature or soul into one of holiness and purity.

As with most Jewish words, there is also a link that can be derived from gematria — in which numerical values are assigned to the letters of a word. The Hebrew word for milk is chalav, which has a numerical value of 40 — the number of days Moses was on Mount Sinai.

Finally, in the writings of Kabbalah, wine and blood symbolise judgment, while water and milk symbolise compassion. The Jewish people earned the right to divine compassion with the receipt of the Torah on Shavuot and this is reflected in our eating of dairy products.

Whatever the reasons, I rarely need much excuse for enjoying a good cheesecake, but it does make me feel better knowing that this indulgence is actually a way of connecting me spiritually and physically with the Torah and all its mitzvot.

vanilla and lemon cheesecake

Preparation time: 20 minutes.
Cooking time: 30 minutes.
Serves 8

● 1 packet trifle sponge bases — cut into slices
● 675g cream cheese
● Juice and zest of 1 lemon
● 55g soft margarine plus 1 tablespoon to grease tin
● 2 eggs separated
● 75g caster sugar plus 1 extra tablespoon
● 1 tablespoon cornflour
● 1 tablespoon vanilla sugar
● 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
● 150ml double cream
● Garnish: zest of lemon and a dusting of vanilla sugar

● Pre-heat the oven to 190˚ C/375˚ C/ Gas Mark 5. Grease and line a loose-bottom 22cm/ 9 in cake tin.
● Arrange the trifle pieces on the base of the cake tin, overlapping where necessary.
● Put the cheese, sugar, zest and juice of lemon into a mixing bowl.
● Add the margarine, yokes, corn flour and finally the cream. Whisk together until smooth.
● Whisk the egg whites in a separate bowl until they are at soft peak stage. Add 1 tablespoon of caster sugar.
● Carefully fold the egg whites into the cheese mixture. Pour the mixture over the sponge base.
● Bake for 30 minutes or until the cake is set around the edges and slightly brown.
● Leave to cool in the oven for 2 hours and then transfer to the fridge.
● Remove from the cake tin. Garnish with zest of 1 lemon and thick yoghurt with vanilla seeds or vanilla yoghurt.

Last updated: 2:33pm, May 25 2011